This is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary su...moreThis is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary suspense, you might be better off skipping the reviews and just reading it.
The setting is London in 1922, where economic necessity forces Frances Wray and her mother to rent out rooms in their home to a young couple, the eponymous “paying guests” – a term they prefer to “lodgers” to save face in their genteel neighborhood. The arrival of Leonard and Lilian Barber shakes up their lives in unexpected ways, especially for Frances, a 26-year-old former activist who is now caught devoting most of her time to the upkeep of the old house.
Do note that this is a very slow starter: the first half is setup and momentum builds gradually; it took me around 100 pages to get invested. The wait does pay off, however, as the second half is a gripping psychological thriller that kept me up nearly all night. I wouldn't call it fast-paced, any more than the other Waters novels I've read (Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet), because Waters develops her scenes in full lifelike detail, not stinting on any of the subtleties of human interaction. But at the same time, she builds up tension and suspense so expertly that, once the plot gets going, it never feels slow.
Meanwhile, the character development is excellent, and their feelings and relationships ring true throughout. In that sense I actually preferred The Paying Guests to Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet; the latter two are great fun and get off to quicker starts, but each has plot and character moments that I found over-the-top and unconvincing. The Paying Guests is a little quieter, its drama a little more restrained, and its protagonists a little more mature; without sacrificing excitement, it feels entirely realistic. Frances’s reactions consistently had me thinking, “yes, yes, that’s exactly how that would feel,” whether the situation is mundane or extreme, and Frances herself is an intriguing character with more depth than is immediately evident. The secondary characters are also colorful and convincing. I particularly liked the honest, sympathetic - and imaginative - way Waters portrays the effects of the leads' actions on other people, both those close to them and people they'd never heard of. The ripple effect is in full force here.
And it works as a period piece too, with lots of detail and atmosphere. I especially enjoyed the aspect of the book dealing with the criminal justice system; the people involved in it and the sequence of events are realistically drawn (not always the case in novels). And the writing, too, is very good. I am a reader easily annoyed by figurative language – many authors seem to include it more to show off than because it contributes to the story – but even I could not fail to appreciate such fresh and apt turns of phrase. For instance, in a tense moment: “They embraced, two hearts thudding like fists on the opposite sides of a bolted door.”
This book didn’t change my life, and the end seemed a bit of a cop-out, but it is excellent, high-quality entertainment, an intense and savvy psychological thriller that I would not hesitate to recommend (unless you are offended by lesbian sex, in which case this is not the book for you!).
Disclosure: I received a free copy for review through the Amazon Vine Program.(less)
Okay, guys. I have a confession to make. I hope you’ll still be my friends.
I’m not a fan of Jane Austen.
For starters, I’m not much of a romance reader...moreOkay, guys. I have a confession to make. I hope you’ll still be my friends.
I’m not a fan of Jane Austen.
For starters, I’m not much of a romance reader. I do have romantic buttons, but they’re small and hard to find. I need some passion—by which I don’t even mean sex, but emotional intensity. Austen’s books are a bit.... bloodless.
Now to keep my literary feminist cred, I know that even if the romances don’t make me swoon, I ought to love these books for the social commentary. The problem? Said commentary consists of detailed depictions of the social lives of the independently wealthy. Few topics bore me more. I had the same problem with The Great Gatsby. No matter how worthy these novels may be, complete disinterest in the subject matter is a high hurdle.
Reading Persuasion crystallized all this for me. Of course, you shouldn’t judge Austen’s entire body of work by Persuasion; of all her books, this seems to inspire the most polarized opinions. (A lot of people hate Mansfield Park, too, but few consider it their favorite. Persuasion is either at the top of people’s Austen lists, or at the bottom.) There's good reason to believe that it wasn't even finished. Still, I came down on the “hated it” side.
Plenty of intelligent people have already written about the problems with this novel (this Slate article is a good example). Anne is a passive, tiresomely angelic character. The cast is divided into three basic categories: People We Are Supposed to Admire, whom we are told possess refined manners, sensible dispositions, intelligence, and self-awareness; People At Whom We Are Supposed to Chuckle Wryly, who are foolish but harmless; and People With No Redeeming Qualities Whatsoever, who are described in such terms as:
“The real circumstances . . . were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved. . . .”
Which doesn’t actually tell us anything about the Musgroves’ son except that Jane Austen’s judgment of him is very poor – which is why I’ve categorized the characters as I have, because I know more about what Austen wants me to think of them than about the people themselves. That’s not incisive observation of human nature, it’s just shoving opinions down our throats.
Also, I was, um, bored. Take out keen psychological insight and all you’re left with is a stultifying story of wealthy young people with nothing to do but hang out with the same tiny social group all the time, for whom a grand adventure is a tame little beach trip. I know we are supposed to feel for Austen’s heroines because if they can’t catch a husband to be dependent on, they’ll have to either find a job as a governess or a blood relative to be dependent on. And sure, having so few options sucks, but you need outside knowledge of Austen’s world to really feel for them. There’s no sense of immediacy to the problem of the heroines’ futures, no chilling examples of what's in store if they're unsuccessful to spur them on in their husband-hunting. In a way it seems this serious backdrop is something added by fans to try to make the romances bigger and more important than the way they are actually presented in the books. Of course finding love is important to most people, now as well as then, and I don't object to the novels' being structured around romance as I do their being built of mundane social engagements, but it isn't exactly shown as a matter of life and death.
All that said, the romance here isn’t bad. There’s a sense of simmering passion between Anne and Captain Wentworth that I don’t remember from Austen’s other novels; it’s there in the way they hardly speak but are so physically aware of one another, in a way that seems unusual for Austen, whose characters are often scarcely physical beings at all. And the letter at the end is definitely swoonworthy. Still, I’m glad the book had only 200 pages.(less)
Jo Walton’s books always seem to come out around 3.5 stars for me: I like them, but not as much as I want to. I keep coming back because she is a good...moreJo Walton’s books always seem to come out around 3.5 stars for me: I like them, but not as much as I want to. I keep coming back because she is a good writer, and because, unlike most fantasy authors, she has a talent for telling a story in one book without padding, and for telling a unique story every time. That holds true here, though again my response was lukewarm.
Patricia Cowan is a very old woman with dementia, but her symptoms go beyond the expected: she remembers two distinct lives, two different partners, two sets of children – who both come to visit her in two different nursing homes. This book follows her throughout both of her lives: through her childhood, to the point of divergence in 1949 (when she accepts a proposal of marriage, or doesn’t), and then through alternating chapters in two increasingly different worlds. There are actually two alternate histories here – one a more peaceful and accepting version of 20th century history, the other more violent and ugly. The history plays out in the background, however, in asides while our protagonist goes through her life as either Pat or Trish.
This is a story told largely in summary, as it tries to capture all important events in two different lives in just over 300 pages. In some ways that’s a strength, as Walton captures the scope of two entire lives with relatively few words. The children in particular come vividly to life with just a few deft strokes. The way the two lives unfold in counterpoint is clever and well-done, and for narrative summary, the story manages to be quite compelling. On the other hand, this technique also distances the reader from the characters, a problem particularly evident in both of Patricia’s relationships. Her husband, Mark, is an awful person with no redeeming qualities (the best that can be said of him is that he doesn’t actually hit her). We’re told his conversation on their first meeting is scintillating, but we don’t see that; what we do see is all warning signs and no charm, so it’s hard to imagine why anyone would marry him. (view spoiler)[It’s almost as if Walton herself had divorced the guy, and was unwilling to give him any credit whatsoever. (hide spoiler)] Meanwhile her partner, Bee, is a great person with no bothersome qualities, and it’s hard to say anything about their relationship except that it’s apparently perfect.
And sometimes the summary is rushed to the point of improbable omissions in the characters' lives: for instance, Pat and Bee don't talk about their prior sexual experience (or lack thereof) until several years into their relationship? This seems to happen not because of any reticence on their part, but rather because from the author's standpoint, they've only been together for a chapter.
As for the alternate history, I found it unsatisfying, particularly when the book indicates that the path the world takes depends on Patricia’s decision. If one obscure woman’s choice to marry or not is meant to determine the fate of the world within a few short years, I want to be shown how and why, not just have all explanations waved away with the words “butterfly effect.”
So I am left where I so often am with Jo Walton’s books: the writing is good, the ideas are great, and the story and characters have a lot of potential but would have been more effective with more development. As is, this isn’t bad, but for alternate lives and possibilities I would recommend Life After Life before this – a much longer book, but for me a more memorable and satisfying one.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
If you love research-heavy historical fiction and complete immersion in other times and places, you should read this book. Likewise, if you love femin...moreIf you love research-heavy historical fiction and complete immersion in other times and places, you should read this book. Likewise, if you love feminist historical fiction or you want to read about ways women can wield power in a patriarchal society. But if you’re looking for a plot-driven novel, or you’re bored by books that lean more heavily on setting than character, you may want to steer clear. Also note that despite the cover, this is definitely not YA in either content or style.
Saint Hilda of Whitby was an influential and renowned abbess in 7th century England. Virtually nothing is known about her early life, which is Griffith’s subject here: this book begins when Hild is 3, and ends abruptly when she’s around 20; Griffith is currently writing the second of what will probably be a trilogy. In this book, Hild grows up in the court of her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria (this part is true), where she gains notoriety as a child seer (this, as far as I can tell, is fiction). It's a tumultuous time, with England divided into many small kingdoms warring with each other for land and spoils, and with Christianity making inroads in a culture that previously worshipped many gods.
In her Author’s Note, Griffith explains that because so little is known of the real Hild, she recreated her story by researching the setting to death and then placing the character inside it: an interesting method and one that explains a great deal about this book. The level of research and immersion in the setting is nothing short of brilliant: everything is closely observed, from social interactions to food preparation to clothing, jewelry and decoration. The natural world, too, is described in vivid detail, from plants and animals to weather and the changing of seasons. I can’t think of another book that does a better job transporting the reader to its setting.
As for the plot, it suffers from some problems common to historical fiction based on real people. One is that the book has no clear narrative arc: we follow Hild through periods of violence, in which she accompanies her uncle to war, and periods of peace, in which she helps with the weaving and wanders about observing animal behavior. Sections of the story are very compelling, while in others little happens for extended periods; the pacing is fairly uniform throughout, but with perhaps more danger and incident in the beginning than toward the end. (I’ve never called out a blurber in a review before, but Val McDermid’s claim that this book “reads like a thriller” is, I’m sorry, flat-out unethical. Either she is lying or she’s incapable of understanding the difference between research-heavy historical fiction and a thriller, and either way she shouldn’t be writing blurbs. A book that devotes several pages to exploring the techniques of goldsmithing or the building of a hedge is nothing like a thriller. Fortunately, the digressions are well-written and never felt pedantic.)
The other problem is that real-life political conflicts are complex, involving more players than can be developed within the space of a novel; an author is forced to either simplify or pack the story with names that are meaningless to the reader. Griffith chooses the latter option. Eventually I gave up on understanding the political nuances and just read for Hild’s story, but future editions would be improved by a character list.
As for the characters themselves, they’re believable, but they didn’t impress me or inspire much feeling. To me Hild is the weakest of the bunch; it seems like she’s meant to be all things to all readers, having whatever reactions are convenient for the current scene. But the secondary characters are more convincing, and they believably inhabit their world. Their relationships feel authentic, and I appreciated Griffith’s focus on Hild’s relationships with the women in her life.
I would not recommend this to everyone: only if you want to read somewhat dense historical fiction that requires concentration and are less concerned about a traditional plot. So, 3.5 stars, rounded up because the things it does well, it does really well, and where it stumbles, it's still redeemable. I won't promise to read the sequel, but I'm glad I read this one.(less)
I was intrigued to read this: a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a housemaid. Fanfiction doesn't appeal to me (no matter what...moreI was intrigued to read this: a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a housemaid. Fanfiction doesn't appeal to me (no matter what my glowing review of Fangirl may have led you to believe); seeing beloved characters reimagined by someone other than the author who made me love them generally is not something I find emotionally fulfilling. And in any case, while I like Pride and Prejudice, it's never been a favorite. I do, however, enjoy retellings, which have a different appeal, casting new light on old stories or playing with perspective in ways that make readers rethink our assumptions. So it makes sense to me that Baker set her story of Regency servitude within the framework of a beloved classic: not just for commercial reasons, but for its potential to make readers think about whose stories we consider important. It's hard to dismiss the Bennets as privileged and oblivious when we've vicariously enjoyed that privilege already, with no more thought to the servants than they have.
In that sense, Longbourn is a successful retelling, depicting the behind-the-scenes stories of the servants who toil to make their employers' lives agreeable. For instance, Baker takes a sentence from Austen--"from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. . . [T]he very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy"--and unpacks it: the weather was too miserable for the Bennet girls to step outdoors, so they sent a servant out into it to fetch their doodads instead. It's a fair interpretation, though often a gritty one that may not appeal to Austen fans. There is a lot about bodily functions here, down to the contents of the chamber pots that Sarah carries out. Without indoor plumbing, that is of course part of the servants' lives, but at times the focus seems excessive, as if Baker finds the Bennets' having bodily functions at all to be shocking or shameful.
My greater reservation about the retelling, however, is that almost all of Baker's points are made within the first chapter. This quote from the third page sums it up nicely: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." Two pages after that, Lydia complains to the overworked and underappreciated housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, about how hard her own life is. The rest of the book repeats what we learn in Chapter 1: that the work of a servant is exhausting, thankless, demeaning, and likely to cause chilblains.
Of course, this isn't just a response to Pride and Prejudice, but also a story in its own right, and on that level it was only mildly successful for me. It gets off to a slow start and sags in the middle, so that halfway through I nearly put it down unfinished. It does improve, however: the last third is the strongest, and while the lengthy Napoleonic Wars flashback near the end is a bit odd structurally, it's effective at portraying the devastation of war and adding resonance to the novel. The main protagonist, Sarah, is notable mostly for reactions that seem too modern for her time: "really no one should have to deal with another person's dirty linen" she thinks on the second page--in a time when laundry is heavy manual labor this is a radical opinion, and there's no explanation of how Sarah came to it. In another incident she happens by the barracks when a soldier is being flogged, and is sickened and traumatized by the event even though she's never met the person and isn't otherwise unusually sensitive. I never quite believed that a real servant in the 1810s would think the way Sarah does.
In the meanwhile, Sarah's inevitable love interest (I won't spoil who it is, because Baker teases us with a love triangle, but it's really obvious) also lacks personality and comes across as a standard male love interest. The most interesting character is the long-suffering Mrs. Hill, though savvy readers will spot her big secret from a mile away. The characters from Pride and Prejudice remain mostly in the background, and Baker seems to rely on our knowing them already from Austen's work. Some (Elizabeth, Wickham, and especially Mr. Bennet) are reinterpreted in ways unlikely to be popular with fans, though others (Mr. Collins, Mary, Mrs. Bennet) get an interestingly sympathetic treatment. Mrs. Hill's campaign to impress Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas is one of the best parts of the book.
Long story short, this is a decent mainstream novel to while away some time, if you don't object to reading a generic romance between a pair of blandly inoffensive young people, and it has the added bonus of a social conscience. The writing is fine, though I wouldn't put it in the literary category (the characterization isn't that deep in any case), and Baker appears to have done her research. It wasn't quite as interesting thematically as I'd hoped, though, and it's not the best tale of servant life that I've read. For novels that delve more deeply into the lives of English servants (albeit in different time periods) I'd recommend Lady's Maid or The Remains of the Day first. Two and a half stars. (less)
This book wants to be Jane Austen with magic. It's entertaining enough if you like Regency domestic dramas and are looking for a light read, but that'...moreThis book wants to be Jane Austen with magic. It's entertaining enough if you like Regency domestic dramas and are looking for a light read, but that's the best I can say for it.
Shades of Milk and Honey follows the typical Austenian marriage plot: two daughters of the landed gentry seek eligible husbands, people are mannerly and attend balls and dinner parties, etc. The book seems to be set in an alternate world, where magic is considered a ladylike accomplishment like painting or piano playing, although the existence of "glamour" does not seem to have altered the history or culture at all.
I was initially drawn in by the premise and the quasi-period tone, and this proved to be a quick read: just under 300 pages, and very easy reading despite the suggestion of 19th-century style. The plot is entertaining, though entirely predictable, and proved compelling enough for me to finish quickly. But in retrospect it was unsatisfying, borrowing far too heavily from Austen rather than breaking any new ground. Almost the entire cast consists of stripped-down copies of Austen characters: Jane, our protagonist, is a mixture of Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price; her younger sister Melody is Marianne Dashwood with a liberal dose of Lydia Bennet; their parents are Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; there's a Mr. Wickham, a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even a neighbor who reminded me of Harriet Smith.
And they spin through the expected scenes (walks in the garden, strawberry-picking, etc.) without spark or individuality; characters' relationships with each other are uniformly one-note and their interactions bland and repetitive. Jane is the only one with any depth, and she's too dense to be believed. This is a woman who can't even guess who her sister's secret lover is despite the fact that he visits the sister every day and both are acting besotted. In the end the book feels like fanfiction: you might read it because you like Austen, but there's no reason to be interested in Kowal's characters for their own sake. And the plot unravels at the end, with an action-heavy climax that feels out-of-place and melodramatic in a book that's otherwise stuck slavishly to Austenian tropes, followed by a hasty wrap-up. As for the romance, to the extent it works at all it's because the novel's structure makes it inevitable, not because there's any reason for the two to be attracted to each other or believable growth of affection between them.
As for the writing, it's readable, but very unsubtle and often abrupt. Kowal has a clunky tendency to repeat words several times within a couple of sentences, and to tell the readers what she's already shown. There are also some anachronisms in the language: for instance, Jane identifies another character as suffering from "depression," a term not used to refer to the psychological condition until the 1860s, and more importantly, one that rings jarringly modern for the Regency illusion the book tries to sustain.
The final verdict: Okay if you're into Austen fanfiction and looking for a beach read, but not a book I'd recommend.(less)
I really enjoyed reading this: fun, funny urban fantasy with engaging characters and a strong sense of place. Not being a big fan of series these days...moreI really enjoyed reading this: fun, funny urban fantasy with engaging characters and a strong sense of place. Not being a big fan of series these days, I’m not rushing out to grab the sequel, but probably will read it at some point.
Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) is set in contemporary London, starring Peter Grant, a rookie cop who discovers he’s sensitive to magic. There’s a murder mystery, some feuding river spirits, some feuding cops--there’s a lot going on for a short book, and it’s fast-paced and a quick read. I take it the premise has been done before, but I love the juxtaposition of supernatural and mundane and thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of magic and supernatural creatures with police procedures and bureaucracy. And I enjoyed it in spite of not being a mystery fan; the mystery elements are engaging and just creepy enough, without overwhelming the book.
Meanwhile, the characters are just plain fun. Peter is an appealing protagonist whose first-person narration is not just snarky but genuinely funny, and his outlook is always entertaining, from his deadpan observations to doing "science" experiments with magic. He’s not a Chosen One--he’s a little easily distracted to be a great cop, and has to really work at the magic--which is nice; he struggles and makes mistakes just like everyone else. It’s a plot-driven book and so the characterization isn’t the deepest ever, but the cast is vivid and enjoyable, brought to life by strong dialogue and detail. In addition to Peter, I’d happily read more about Leslie, Nightingale, Beverley, Mother and Father Thames (no relation, as they’d be quick to tell you!), even Molly. And while it’s sad that this is in any way notable, the degree to which Aaronovitch respects his female characters stands out. Peter appreciates the boobs, because he’s a young heterosexual man, but the neither he nor the author gets stuck on boobs to the detriment of characterization, nor are women Peter is attracted to defined by their response to his advances.
There’s also a lot of detail about London in the book; far from being a generic setting, it’s drawn with closely-observed detail and the reader gets a real sense of the place as a modern, diverse, tourist-ridden city. You can tell Peter loves it even while he’s constantly frustrated by, for instance, the traffic.
My one complaint about the book is that some plot elements don’t quite add up. At times characters make decisions that seem driven more by plot necessity than common sense, or make leaps of logic that bear fruit only because the author requires them to. (view spoiler)[Peter's deductions after Nightingale gets shot are basically a giant plot hole. He concludes, first, that Pyke must've known about their plans in advance because it's not that easy to get a gun. Well, or Pyke might have possessed someone who already had a gun--but why would he even need to, when in the very first scene he was able to pull a giant bat out of thin air to kill somebody? So that's strike number one--number two is that Peter then says Pyke must either be able to see the future, read minds or have one of the officers in his corner. Well, or maybe he was just eavesdropping? Seems like it'd be an easy thing for a ghost to do, being "corporeally challenged" and all. Peter is right in his deductions, but only because Aaronovitch says so.
Also, I kept thinking that Nightingale was a terrible supervisor, in that he takes Peter into these dangerous and volatile situations, expecting him to play an important role, while giving him zero information about what to expect, even when there's an opportunity to do so. Obviously, an author can't brief the readers because that would make things boring, but when plot necessity shows through this way it throws me out of the story. (hide spoiler)] And the river spirits subplot, while entertaining, doesn’t go very far, with its resolution seeming unnecessarily drastic. (view spoiler)[A hostage exchange isn't really a solution to a problem anyway; it's a way to ensure compliance with the solution. But I didn't see any reason they'd need to take those measures to ensure compliance, when there didn't seem to be much at stake. (hide spoiler)] And not being a big series reader, I was a little disappointed at how much this book reads as the beginning of a series, leaving many questions to be resolved in future volumes. There is a complete plot arc here, however.
Overall, a very fun, fast read that you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying. Now I think I’ve talked myself into seeking out the second book!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best classic novel you’ve never heard of. Correct me if I’m wrong.
This book is set in the early 1930...moreI’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best classic novel you’ve never heard of. Correct me if I’m wrong.
This book is set in the early 1930s in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. It’s an ensemble piece, structured around the activities of local government and the ways they intersect with the characters’ lives. Most versions of the cover feature Sarah Burton, the fiery, progressive new headmistress at the local girls’ school, and she’s one of the most important characters, but there are others: the elderly alderwoman, Mrs. Beddows; the gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, and his troubled daughter, Midge; the bright but impoverished teenager, Lydia Holly; the hedonistic but devout preacher, Councillor Huggins. South Riding follows these characters (and more*--it’s a story about an entire community) over two years, with chapters alternating among various characters.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and Holtby has a clean style that keeps the story moving and focused on the most interesting moments in the characters’ lives. I’ve seen this book criticized for the space devoted to mundane aspects of adult life--the book focuses as much on the characters’ working lives as their personal ones--but that’s one of the reasons I loved it. It avoids well-trodden novelistic paths: most of the characters are middle-aged or older, and first love doesn’t appear even as a subplot. In large part it’s a novel about work and why it matters; anyone who hopes to make a difference with their career will empathize with Sarah Burton’s struggle to make a difference in her school and her occasional doubts about whether her work is important enough in the scheme of things.
But there are many poignant and relatable stories that come out of the characters’ relationships with their work, from the sad case of Agnes Sigglesthwaite, who meant to be a researcher but wound up a miserable science teacher, to the fervent socialist Joe Astell, who takes a cushy job on the county council due to illness and sometimes has trouble relating to the very people he’s trying to help. On the whole it’s a positive and hopeful book, but there is a lot of illness and dying here; the author was terminally ill when she wrote it, and it’s hard not to imagine something of Holtby in Astell, who is desperate to accomplish his work before illness keeps him from it. On the other hand, one of the saddest subplots deals with Lily Sawdon: she is one of the few characters with no real occupation, and perhaps as a consequence, decides her duty as a wife is to hide her sickness from her husband, even at the expense of getting treatment.
South Riding is a character-driven book, and works brilliantly, because the characterization is brilliant. Holtby has the gift of creating fully-formed, memorable characters within just a few pages, characters with all the complexities and foibles of real human beings, and at the same time, people who are easy to sympathize with and like. Sarah Burton is especially memorable: she’s a spinster in her late 30s, but she’s not a damaged or pitiable figure; she’s energetic and optimistic, sociable and engaged with other people. Also a standout is Mrs. Beddows: as the South Riding’s first female alderman, she’s expected to be colorful and allows people to believe outlandish stories about her, but in reality she’s more conventional than that, a worldly-wise grandmother who finds happiness through community involvement--and through the attention of Robert Carne, whom she views as a combination of attractive male friend and spiritual son-in-law. I could go on to describe most of the cast, because they are all excellently-realized characters drawn with exceptional psychological insight, but nothing I say will do Holtby’s writing justice.
Another amazing thing about this book is just how modern it feels, despite being published in 1936. By virtue of its focus on interesting, varied female characters--as well as interactions among them--it’s one of the most feminist novels I’ve read, and indeed Sarah’s feminism would need little updating for the 21st century. An author writing this story today would no doubt be condemned as anachronistic, but since it really is an old book, I’m happy to praise it for being just as relevant now as when it was written. The same goes for the politics. This isn’t a book about politicking, but it is a story involving local government during a time of economic depression, and Holtby’s progressive beliefs do shine through in the way the characters think about their world and the effects of their decisions. For me that’s a plus; literature should deal with big ideas, and the structure of society and purpose of government are certainly that. The fact that these topics are controversial means authors should engage with them, not ignore them.
I do have one issue with the book that bears mentioning. The plot doesn’t fit together quite as well as most ensemble pieces; Holtby perhaps got a little carried away with her ability to write great characters, and spent disproportionate time on some secondary players. Alfred Huggins is the chief offender here (I’ve called him a protagonist above, because of the number of chapters starring him, but he has little interaction with or impact on any of the others), followed by the Sawdons. Also, I doubt many people will read South Riding for its language alone: Holtby has the good journalist’s ability to get to the heart of the matter without excess verbiage, but her use of words is rarely memorable.
In sum, an excellent book, and one that spoke to me much more than classics usually do. I’ll be keeping a copy on my shelf, and I hope some of you will give it a try too!
*Please don’t be intimidated by the character list at the beginning of the BBC edition. It includes everybody who’s ever mentioned in the book, but you won’t have to remember all of them.(less)
Wow, this is an excellent book. Unusual and brutally sad, but excellent.
You’ve probably already read the description of this book: it’s about a charac...moreWow, this is an excellent book. Unusual and brutally sad, but excellent.
You’ve probably already read the description of this book: it’s about a character living her life over and over again, vaguely aware of what’s happened before and able to make changes and correct her mistakes. Ursula is born to an English family in 1910, and goes on to lead a series of lives, intersecting like puzzle pieces. This is anything but a straightforward narrative, sometimes jumping backward and forward in time, sometimes repeating the same scenario in several variations, sometimes splicing two or even three scenes together. But if you’re ready to pay attention and go along for the ride, if you like puzzles and complex structures and piecing things together as you read, it’s enormous fun.
Well, I say that, but at the same time it’s a tragic, sometimes harrowing book. Ursula dies any number of painful and detailed deaths: sickness, murder, suicide, the Blitz.... I wasn’t expecting how disquieting it would be to read all the stories leading up to these deaths. And yet, I wanted to read on, to see what other possibilities life had in store for the characters. It’s a vivid cast, sometimes changing (in some lives Ursula marries or has a child, in others she doesn’t), but more often staying the same (Ursula’s parents, her sister and three brothers, her eccentric aunt are all recurring characters), and I found their development deeper for the fact that they were living different lives. Perhaps the author had to know her characters even better than usual to imagine how they would have changed had their lives turned out differently.
On a technical level, I’m impressed with Atkinson's writing. She has a gift for detail, the lines of dialogue that encapsulate a personality, or the vibrant or visceral descriptions that bring a place to life. The story moves fairly quickly, without much time for lingering over the scenery, but I still had a strong sense of the places Ursula inhabits, inextricable from the emotions associated with them--that’s strong writing. Atkinson has a distinctive style, with some quirks a lesser writer wouldn’t be able to pull off (run-on sentences, for instance), but her writing is assured enough that they read as choices rather than mistakes.
The choices I question are in the development of the premise. It begins well enough, but the way Atkinson deals with the multiple lives is a bit inconsistent. Sometimes Ursula remembers enough to avoid death or misfortune, but then she dies three times in almost exactly the same way, for no reason I could discern. For much of the book she’s troubled by déjà vu, and seems to be the only one reliving her life, but especially toward the end, others start making different choices too, even before Ursula is born. And then, in what seems a last-ditch attempt to add some greater relevance to the story, Atkinson spends all of about 10 pages on the Ursula-kills-Hitler subplot introduced in the first chapter, without doing anything with it. An author toying with the idea of changing history, but shying away from imagining how history might actually have changed, is my biggest pet peeve in time travel books.
And I’m not sure this book needed any greater relevance. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, bringing to life the time and place in vivid detail. It has just the right mix of familiar-seeming characters and locations with a dizzying array of fresh stories and realistic depth. It’s one of those books that looks at what women’s lives are really like without being heavy-handed about it, so that I suspect many readers miss how feminist it is; Ursula’s older sister, her aunt, and her female friends and colleagues all play key and largely positive roles in her life, and she pursues a career despite knocking up against the glass ceiling. It is a thinking kind of book, a portrayal of life where nothing is inevitable and two equally plausible choices can lead to wildly different results.
So, would I recommend this? Yes, if you’re open to non-linear storylines and willing to put in the effort. It’s the kind of book that rewards reading and re-reading. But keep something lighter on hand at the same time. You may need it.(less)
I had a great time reading Elfland, and also enjoyed Midsummer Night, so was looking forward to this one. But despite a promising beginning, this book...moreI had a great time reading Elfland, and also enjoyed Midsummer Night, so was looking forward to this one. But despite a promising beginning, this book soon lost me and became a drag to finish.
Grail of the Summer Stars is a more direct sequel to both Elfland and Midsummer Night than the latter is to the former, although it could still be understood in isolation. It introduces a new protagonist, Stevie, who begins the book as curator of a metalwork museum, and returns to Mistangamesh from Midsummer Night. I was initially drawn into Stevie's story and intrigued by the mysteries that confront her. Around halfway through, though, it becomes a save-the-world sort of fantasy novel, and falls increasingly into cliché.
Whether you like this installment may depend on what you liked about the previous ones. For me the heart of the earlier books was the interpersonal relationships, and the fantasy aspect added some fun spice. This book is very heavy on the fantasy elements, and I found the characters hard to believe in or care about, perhaps because those fantasy elements define the key characters’ psychologies. Mist was a particular problem for me--he’s such a generic love interest (of the hot 30,000-year-old reincarnated dude variety) that I never believed in him or found him interesting, and thus had no investment in his romance with Stevie. Meanwhile, many of the characters’ crucial choices make little sense (“okay, I’ll help you destroy the world if you let my friends go”.... that makes sense how? If the world is destroyed, your friends still die). Warrington can write normal human life and relationships well, but perhaps because of the enormity of what’s at stake here, much of the book fell into clunkiness and cliché, and the more I read, the less invested I was.
Many of Warrington’s quirks from previous books also return here, and annoyed me more than they had in the past: the sexualized or just plain sexual sibling relationships (view spoiler)[I figured Warrington must be an only child, and checked her website to make sure: fortunately she is, so we don't have to worry about where these creepy relationships are coming from (hide spoiler)]; the recurring idea that people who commit crimes ought to just be forgiven and anyone who tries to bring them to justice is at best misguided; the tendency of characters to wear their hearts on their sleeves even when that’s not supposed to be their personality.
But, while this book was definitely not what I was hoping for, you might enjoy it more, particularly if you like save-the-world plots, non-human protagonists and books that are heavy on the fantasy elements. Warrington still writes good imagery and humorous British dialogue, and the writing style and pacing are similar to the previous books in the series. Still, for me it was a disappointment.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I had a great time with Elfland, and while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much, it’s still a pleasant, engaging and mostly well-written novel.
Midsum...moreI had a great time with Elfland, and while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much, it’s still a pleasant, engaging and mostly well-written novel.
Midsummer Night is a standalone fantasy loosely related to Elfland, but you could easily read this one first. It is set on an old estate along the modern-day Scottish coast, which has been troubled by meddlesome faerie folk. The story centers on three women: Gill Sharma, who comes to the estate to recover after an accident puts an end to her athletic career; Peta Lyon, an art teacher; and Dame Juliana Flagg, an enigmatic 60-something sculptor and owner of the estate.
I was surprised to find how different this book is from Elfland, although both have engaging plots and characters, similar pacing and lovely imagery. While Elfland is a family drama-cum-romance starring the faerie folk, Midsummer Night is the almost creepy story of its primarily human protagonists’ encounters with the faerie world, containing fewer family bonds and no star-crossed lovers. (While I loved the romance in Elfland, this book didn’t need one, and I admire Warrington for not shoehorning one in anyway.) There are also fewer melodramatic elements, although there are some hidden affairs and mysterious parentages in the story's past.
Like Elfland, this one is a bit of a slow starter, and it wasn’t until Chapter 3 that I was convinced I’d like the book. But the plot soon becomes exciting and immersive, the writing and dialogue are good, and the imagery and atmosphere excellent. The characters are interesting and I mostly liked them, but wasn’t quite as convinced as I was in Elfland. There, I was impressed by Warrington’s ability to create in Rosie a character who’s warm, sensitive and communicative, and yet feels real and unidealized. Here, I got the impression that Rosie is the type of protagonist that comes most naturally to the author, and was less than completely convinced by the brusque and reserved Dame J. Along the same line, there are moments when the villains are much more transparent than I was willing to credit.
Overall, though, this is an enjoyable and satisfying book, and if you like fairy tales grounded in the modern world, you will probably like Midsummer Night. I certainly plan to read the third book in this trilogy once it is released.(less)
I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet, and so was excited to read this book, reputed to be the author’s best. Fingersmith is a fun read, with a gripping plot a...moreI enjoyed Tipping the Velvet, and so was excited to read this book, reputed to be the author’s best. Fingersmith is a fun read, with a gripping plot and well-developed characters. It’s also darker than Tipping the Velvet, in a fairly lurid way (I’m not talking about the sex, of which there isn’t much), and the plot doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Fingersmith is one of those books you won’t want to read too many reviews about before diving in, lest they spoil the surprises that are half the fun. It begins with a young thief, Sue, who joins a plot to swindle an heiress out of her fortune. This being a Sarah Waters book, attraction develops between Sue and the heiress and.... you’ll have to read it to find out the rest! The book had me staying up much later than I’d intended to find out what happens next, which had not happened to me for awhile. Certainly a lot of fun.
The plot is also the source of some problems, however. The first big twist set very high expectations, which the rest of the story failed to meet, and the rationale behind that twist doesn’t make much logical sense, as it’s hard to see how that course of events would benefit anyone. (view spoiler)[There's really no reason for Sue to be put in the asylum "in Maud's place"--the only reason Maud was going to go there was so Gentleman wouldn't have to put up with her. Clearly, he decided he could put up with her (perhaps prematurely), and Sue didn't pose a danger to anyone, having only gotten involved for Mrs. Sucksby's sake anyway. Maud seemed to think she needed a decoy, but it's unclear why; if the uncle had cared enough to seek her out he would have quickly discovered that Sue was not Maud and gone on to look for Maud at the same starting point as if there were no Sue. (hide spoiler)] There are also a few other problems of the “why doesn’t she just....?” variety. (view spoiler)[Back to the asylum, Sue's "insanity" was based on denying that she was Maud, so why didn't she just "remember" her identity and announce that she'd been cured? There was some indication that maybe Gentleman would've had to sign her out, but still this seemed like a good strategy to me, and much better than just endlessly protesting that she's totally sane, and it's all a conspiracy, you've gotta believe her! (hide spoiler)] Meanwhile, some of the problems with which Waters torments her heroines are just so absurd that I couldn’t even feel bad for them (and I wanted to! I had a soft spot for these crazy girls. Especially Maud, who seriously needs a therapist). To be fair, Tipping the Velvet has its over-the-top elements as well and I suspect that for many of Waters’s fans this is a feature not a bug; Fingersmith has been called “Dickensian,” and Dickens was no stranger to melodrama (I say this as someone who mostly likes Dickens). Finally, while the slow pacing and attention to detail work well at the beginning to develop the setting and characters, later in the book this drags the plot down, leaving too few pages for the rushed resolution. (view spoiler)[I mean, c'mon, I liked these two together but their history was a really terrible basis for a relationship. If they were going to get together I wanted more than 5 pages to see how that was going to work. I'm also unconvinced that Maud's commercializing her sexuality through writing porn was at all empowering, but that may have been intentional. Since her mental health was never great. (hide spoiler)]
All that said, the book still has a lot going for it. The writing style is fluid and Waters does a great job with atmosphere and period detail. The book explores the seamy underbelly of Victorian society, from abusive asylums where inconvenient women could be locked away for years, to the sale of pornography (yep, the Victorians were hypocrites). The character development, particularly of the two protagonists, is very good, and Waters uses the dual first person narration to great effect. You really get a sense of how the narrators think differently, in subtle ways, and revisiting some of the same events with a different set of eyes is occasionally humorous and consistently fascinating. (view spoiler)[Sue's complete failure to fake the lady's maid role convincingly was both adorable and hilarious. I had been wondering how she could possibly pull it off with like 3 days' preparation. After all, this is England, and aren't the English supposed to be able to tell your exact position in society and the occupations of both of your parents based solely on your accent? (hide spoiler)] On a couple of occasions I wanted to say “But that isn’t how it happened!” only to realize.... wait a minute.... everyone is unreliable, and everyone tends to view events in the light most favorable to themselves. In general I’m skeptical of authors trying to write multiple narrators, but if you want to see it done right, read this book.
Overall then, a compelling and well-written story, as long as you don’t mind some plot contrivances. This is really 3.5 stars, but I’m rounding up to 4 because I had a lot of fun with it, and because the author does a great job with character and point-of-view. I would recommend this to those who their historical fiction closer to the literary end of the spectrum, but there’s enough plot to satisfy those who typically avoid literary books as well.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Fortunately, I did not have to read this book in grade school, because I would not have gotten anything out of it at the time. I actually own a copy t...moreFortunately, I did not have to read this book in grade school, because I would not have gotten anything out of it at the time. I actually own a copy that once belonged to my high school, but avoided it for years. I think this was because I misread the title as “Silas Mariner,” and assuming it to be a classic about seamen, associated it with Moby Dick. And obviously, I didn’t want to read anything like that. As it turns out, Silas Marner contains neither essays showing off the author's research, nor mariners. Silas is, in fact, a weaver.
This short book tells the story of a man who more or less withdraws from life after a crushing betrayal, to be eventually reawakened through his love for a child. It’s a sweet story, at times saccharine and with some all-too-convenient plot elements, but still, it’s a good one. The writing, of course, is excellent, sometimes sarcastic, and peppered with incisive observations about human nature. For the most part, the characterization is excellent; I fully believed in the Raveloe villagers, and even the minor ones are distinct and realistic.
But then there is Eppie, the original Pollyanna--so perfect she’s more plot device than person. Even when she misbehaves, she does so adorably; as a toddler she never throws tantrums, and as a teenager she’s never for a moment rebellious or selfish or withdrawn. She’s a fantasy child, with none of the human foibles the other characters display, and it’s because of her that the later part of the novel sometimes becomes saccharine.
Overall, though, a sweet, enjoyable story from a gifted writer. I decided to try this one before Middlemarch, and it’s good enough that I’m eager to try Eliot’s major work.(less)
Technically, Elfland is urban fantasy, but forget everything you normally associate with that phrase; this is a family drama with a fairy tale or two...moreTechnically, Elfland is urban fantasy, but forget everything you normally associate with that phrase; this is a family drama with a fairy tale or two in its ancestry. A bit like a contemporary Juliet Marillier.
The book centers on two families in small-town England: both have children, who begin the book as teenagers but quickly grow into young adults. Both families are “Aetherial,” meaning they have otherworldly origins, but have chosen to live on Earth--and now find themselves stuck there. But while there’s enough magic in the book to keep it from becoming too mundane, the fantasy elements play a relatively minor role. Very little time is spent in the Otherworld, despite what the title and cover might have you believe; Warrington evokes a sense of wonder about it, undiluted by a drawn-out quest or travelogue. Elfland is, first, a family drama, and second, a romance. It’s also a melodrama, but while that normally means “cue detached eye-rolling,” this one completely worked for me, probably because it’s so easy to believe in the characters and get caught up in their stories.
I had a fantastic time with this book, finding it more enjoyable and immersive than anything I’d read for awhile. The characters are real and complicated people who are easy to sympathize with. Rosie, who is probably the protagonist (though the book is told in third-person and often shifts to other POVs) makes an excellent heroine: she’s nice, but in a way that feels genuine and realistic--not at all one of those too-good-to-be-true types that authors create when they’re afraid of giving their leads flaws. And she’s reasonable, which makes her easy to relate to. The same goes for her family: the characters and the way they communicate with each other are positive, making them easy to like, but always feel real and never contrived or saccharine.
And the romance is a lovely slow burn that I did not expect to like (based on the identity of the love interest), but did. The book is very positive about women and sexuality: Rosie goes to college, dates, has some sex, and this is treated as perfectly normal and healthy and not something that need be dealt with in great detail (although there are some explicit scenes later in the book).
The writing itself is nothing to write home about, but there is some great imagery, and Warrington does a good job with the modern (and very British) dialogue. At times the plot felt like a bit much (there’s perhaps one murderous rage too many), and occasionally a male character would seem a tad too sensitive, but by the time I’d gotten a couple of chapters in, I was thoroughly enjoying the book and was not put off by its imperfections. So, while not great literature, Elfland is still a lovely work, and one I’d recommend to those who like their fantasy firmly grounded in the real world.(less)
This is one of those books that's almost impossible to talk about without revealing plot elements, and that's most enjoyable to discover as you go. So...moreThis is one of those books that's almost impossible to talk about without revealing plot elements, and that's most enjoyable to discover as you go. So, if you think you'd like a young-adult novel starring two women--one a pilot, one an intelligence officer--in WWII, and you don't like spoilers, you should probably avoid all reviews (mine included) and just read it.
Now for the review.
Overall, Code Name Verity is an enjoyable book. The story is gripping, with tension and danger throughout--naturally enough, as one of the protagonists spends the book as a Nazi prisoner. The characters are fairly vivid, and I enjoyed reading about a pair of tough, capable women. I was unaware of the role of women pilots in England's Air Transport Auxiliary during the war, and so especially enjoyed reading about Maddie's advancement as a pilot. The author, a pilot herself, does a great job of communicating her love of flight, and her clear knowledge of planes adds verisimilitude. Wartime England and occupied France are both brought to life, and the writing style is adequate without drawing attention to itself.
Two problems then. First, I liked the idea of the main characters' friendship better than its depiction; they seem to leap right from getting acquainted to undying sisterhood, with readers missing a step somewhere along the way.
Second, there are the myriad problems with the epistolary format. The first 2/3 or so of the book is supposed to be written by Julie, the captured intelligence officer, as a "confession" for her captors. Unreliable narrators are fun and this keeps the reader guessing. But for the premise to work, we must believe that 1) the Nazi captain is such a lover of literature that he doesn't mind that his prisoner's "confession" is actually a novel-length narrative weaving together her own day-to-day life as a prisoner and her best friend's wartime experiences, and 2) despite that, he's too dense to realize that she's not telling the truth--even though the third sentence of her account is "I have always been good at pretending," even though she paints herself as a gutsy con artist throughout and admits to making up details. That's a lot to swallow. I'd figured out much of what Julie was hiding halfway through her narrative--for instance, that she liked the translator much more than she let on--and had a hard time believing someone whose job is getting the truth out of prisoners wouldn't have figured her out too. Wein just does not handle well the tension between an author's need to give hints to the reader of what's really going on, and Julie's need to write a completely convincing document. Interspersing Julie's story with other documents could have arrived at the same result without making both her and her captors look stupid.
Maddie narrates the last third, and the premise here doesn't make much sense either--she writes most of it in hiding in France, where if found her writing would endanger not only her but the family sheltering her. The two characters' voices sound alike, and the voice doesn't quite fit either of them: too refined for Maddie the working-class mechanic, not refined enough for the ultra-privileged Julie, and too young for either. (Their voice reminded me of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, and she isn't much like either of them.) In both cases their styles are also too novelistic to be plausible--complete with dialogue, scenes, etc.
There are some plot details, too, that don't add up. (view spoiler)[Like, Julie's getting captured because she looked the wrong way when trying to cross a street. It must have been a two-way street, or it wouldn't matter what side of the road cars use in that country, but then, why would she only look one way if she was crossing a two-way street? And then, why are the Allies willing to put so many resources into bombing an empty building? It seemed like the author felt Julie needed to be vindicated somehow, and using her intelligence to destroy the hotel did that. Except, the Nazis can always just requisition another building. So what was the big deal? (hide spoiler)] But, in the end, Code Name Verity is a competent book that I would have enjoyed much more at age 14 than as an adult. It's very young-adult, in everything from pacing to plot elements to the characters' voices, and I wonder why Wein chose that route, given that the protagonists are women in their 20s whose stories would suit an adult book just fine (despite that, they're rather jarringly referred to as "girls" throughout, perhaps to make them seem closer to the intended audience's age).
So, do I recommend the book? Maybe. Despite the glowing reviews, I found nothing mindblowing about it. But if you typically enjoy YA and are willing to engage in a lot of suspension of disbelief around the premise, chances are you'll love it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is not my usual genre. For me books about modern life generally fall into at least one of the following categories: pretentious, boring, sacchari...moreThis is not my usual genre. For me books about modern life generally fall into at least one of the following categories: pretentious, boring, saccharine or trashy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, which I read out of curiosity; in fact I was completely sucked in, living in the book rather than merely reading it.
The Casual Vacancy is not plot-driven, but essentially, it follows six or seven families in a small English village after the death of a prominent town councillor. Local politics is key, but just as much time is spent on the often fraught relationships between people. There's no clear protagonist, with about a dozen major characters and many minor ones, and the point-of-view constantly shifts among them in a way that could have been annoying, but works. Others have been bored, but I found the pacing excellent, in large part because there are so many interlocking stories: I would not read a book about any one of these individual plotlines, but as is we don't spend enough time with any one character for their story to drag or become too mundane. And Rowling deserves her reputation as an excellent storyteller; I really was fascinated throughout.
As for the characters, I was impressed. Characterization isn't one of the Harry Potter books' strong suits (those being plot, inventiveness and humor), but here everyone is realistic and human. The portrayals are often unflattering: people are self-absorbed, petty, or complacent, family relationships are conflict-ridden, and people deal with issues that may not be apparent from the outside, such as domestic violence, mental illness or drug abuse. Everyone has character flaws. But that's life. Despite a few false notes, such as one sudden transformation at the end, I thought it was brilliant, and no, I didn't hate everyone in the cast any more than I hate everyone in my real life. One of the book's strengths is that everyone has genuine flaws, no one is universally liked by the other characters, and yet you can sympathize or identify with many of the characters (provided you're not expecting clear-cut heroes and villains), and every reader's reactions to them will be a little different. (Reading reviews, I've seen probably 10 different characters cited as people's favorites or "the only person I could stand"--not many books can do that. For the record, I identified strongly with Parminder, which isn't a reaction anyone else seems to have had.)
Stylistically, the prose here is much like in the Harry Potter books: functional, but unlikely to win literary awards anytime soon. The one thing that irritated me was the phonetic language that's (over-)used for the lower-class characters: not sure what notable difference Rowling sees in the pronunciation of "wuz" and "duz" versus "was" and "does"--mostly this just makes those characters look stupid, which I doubt is her intention.
This book has taken some flak for being heavy-handed. I'll admit to a high tolerance for this as long as it's not at the expense of character development; I don't mind that the book is a parable about the importance of caring for our neighbors, nor that the climax reproduces the parable of the good Samaritan. Crucially, Rowling puts realism before her message; the book has been called "Dickensian," but when Dickens created poor children for readers to pity, he made them angelic. Krystal, the troubled teen around whom the book revolves, is the opposite: she's rude and aggressive and often irresponsible, she steals and curses and sleeps around--while she seems to have a good heart and the potential to do better, she's anything but romanticized. And the characters whose opinions Rowling probably agrees with (aside from the deceased Barry) are no more idealized, while the ones she probably doesn't are hardly villainous--the smug, conservative Howard Mollison, for instance, seems a decent parent and grandparent.
Finally: I think those who hate all the characters are taking this book the wrong way. Yes, everyone's flawed, but.... they're just people. Yes, the book criticizes middle-class complacency.... but I doubt Rowling could have written it without empathy for everyone involved. In the end, the point of all this is that we can't hope to do better if we fail to see the humanity in everyone--even those who might at first seem irredeemable.
So, should you read this book? Yes--if you don't mind the inclusion of sex, swearing, domestic abuse, drug addiction, etc.; if you're willing to read about the relationships and politicking of flawed characters in a small town; if you aren't looking for fantasy or anything like Harry Potter. As a reader who grew up with Harry Potter but has since moved on to adult books, I absolutely found it worth my while. (less)
Be warned: there be spoilers below. This book has a very clear and traditiona...moreHere is me reading this book:
Part 1: Yes! Part 2: Whaaaa? Part 3: Um, okay.
Be warned: there be spoilers below. This book has a very clear and traditional structure, so once you recognize its contours there aren't many surprises, but my review gives away a lot.
Tipping the Velvet seems to have a reputation as some kind of lesbian erotica. (That got your attention, didn't it?) The cover features a pair of strippers*, the blurb praises the book as "erotic," and even the title, as it turns out, is a Victorian euphemism for a sex act. I've got to think this is mostly about marketing, because there are no strippers in the book, and while there are a few fairly explicit sex scenes, it's not so far out of the norm for adult fiction.
*I actually read the stripperiffic edition, although I've shelved a different one.
So, what is this book actually about? Coming of age, with an emphasis on relationships. Nancy, our narrator, begins the story as a typical 18-year-old girl living on the Kentish coast in the 1880s. But her life is turned upside-down when she falls hard for a cross-dressing music hall singer, and the story follows her for the next several years until she finally discovers what she wants from life and love.
So here is the part where I talk about plot details. Part 1 is great; I was very quickly drawn into Nancy's life and the intensity of her first love. The story is fun and exciting and Nancy is easy to relate to. Then, inevitably, things go sour, and Nancy runs away from her former life, to emerge as a "male" prostitute. Suddenly she's gorgeous and frivolous and lazy, bearing little resemblance to the person she was in Part 1. Part 2 seems deliberately over-the-top, with Nancy's choices representing the way people might feel (rather than actually behave) after their first nasty breakup. It's entertaining, with lots of sex and crossdressing, but mostly left me confused.
Then comes Part 3, in which Nancy of course finds true love. I liked this better than Part 2, and Nancy starts to make some sense again, but it doesn't quite come together. There's little reason for the two characters to be together beyond physical attraction and proximity, and too much character development is put off till the final pages, with the curtain closing on a flurry of epiphanies.
Even for a coming-of-age story, Nancy is quite the chameleon, so while she's interesting to read about, her personality is elusive. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is well-drawn and interesting. This is one of those books that shows a whole cross-section of society, and it depicts life in Victorian London in great detail, bringing the setting alive in all of its sights, sounds and smells. The book wears its research lightly: grounded in the historical period and fascinating in its detail, but without the research getting in the way of Nancy's adventures.
The panorama of lesbian life at the time (from rich ladies' clubs to the working-class women who gather in the basement of a pub) is especially intriguing, and I appreciate that, unlike much of the fiction I've encountered featuring LGBT characters, the story never turns into a tale of persecution and discrimination. Certainly those tales should be told, and Waters doesn't lose sight of the fact that Victorian England was hardly a paradise of equality. But it's nice to read a different kind of story, and one that focuses on the protagonist's own choices and growth rather than other people acting on her.
Overall, a fairly good book. The writing is noticeably better than average, although I wouldn't quite call it literary, the historical background is excellent and the characterization good. The story doesn't live up to the expectations the first 100 or so pages created, which is why I give 3.5 stars. But it is still worth a read.(less)
I enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly...moreI enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly indifferent to symbolism and other literary devices (maybe I’ll develop more appreciation for them eventually, once my school days are far enough behind me). And I have the feeling that if I were a lover of literary devices and critical essays, I’d give this book 5 stars. As it is.... a solid 4.
The basic plot: the young, unnamed narrator receives a surprise proposal from an older man, Maxim, and moves with him to Manderley, his enormous estate. But no one can stop thinking about his recently-dead first wife, Rebecca, and there’s something increasingly ominous about all of this....
The plot is compelling and suspenseful without falling too far into horror, and I quite enjoyed reading it. The narrator in particular is incredibly well-realized; her shyness and self-consciousness have turned off some readers, but I found her so completely believable and relatable that this didn’t bother me a bit. The secondary characters are also vivid and realistic. Maxim and Rebecca, however, gave me a bit of trouble. Maxim is rather distant for much of the book, and I was never quite sure who he was. As for Rebecca....
(view spoiler)[I am still trying to work out my reaction to Rebecca. Part of this is my unique experience with the book--I let a friend spoil me years ago, thinking I’d probably never read it, and she interpreted the book very differently; her view was that Rebecca is slowly revealed to be a villain, such that the reader understands and accepts Maxim’s murdering her. To me, it seemed we get very few hints of Rebecca’s imperfections before being simply told that she was a sociopath (although that word isn’t actually used), and so I never had any visceral response to her nor thought Maxim’s actions excusable. In part this may be because times have changed; a large part of what’s supposed to make Rebecca so awful is her rampant adultery, which just isn’t as horrifying today as it may have been in the 1930s.
All that aside, I’m not entirely comfortable with the juxtaposition of the good-hearted, timid narrator whose life revolves around her husband with the sociopathic Rebecca, who’s dynamic and has a life and doesn’t need men (but seduces and manipulates them for fun). It’s not uncommon for early-20th-century novels to portray “good” women who are shy and let love dominate their lives, while the “bad” ones want more and do more (and not caring for men, in these cases, always means engaging in romantic relationships with them anyway, but in selfish and destructive ways); a rather unfortunate worldview that we’ve hopefully gotten past today. At least there is the more confident and also good-hearted Beatrice to balance things out a bit. (hide spoiler)]
At any rate, the author does a great job with the setting--which reminds me of an old movie--and with atmosphere and suspense. Everything from the weather to the plants on the estate is imbued with potentially sinister, anthropomorphic qualities. (Occasionally I had my doubts as to whether weather actually works as described, but it makes for good storytelling.) And the writing is, indeed, very good throughout. I’ll leave you with a passage I particularly liked:
“I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say: ‘By-the-way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She’s married, with two children.’ And the blue-bells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me.”
It takes a very good book for me to start marking passages I like, and I’d recommend this one. But it’s probably best if you don’t spoil yourself first!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It took me a long time to get around to reading this, which is a shame, because it’s delightful. If you like historical fantasy at all, you’re almost...moreIt took me a long time to get around to reading this, which is a shame, because it’s delightful. If you like historical fantasy at all, you’re almost certain to enjoy this book.
Will Laurence is a captain in His Majesty’s Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and it looks a lot like the Navy you’d see in a Patrick O’Brien book--all protocol and taking enemy ships for profit--until his ship captures a precious dragon egg and Laurence is sent off the Aerial Corps to be captain of the dragon instead. Dragons here are essentially flying, talking ships, which makes for some entertaining battle scenes and opens up room for an imaginative alternate world.
The plot is entertaining--not action-packed: there’s a lot of training, and a lot about Laurence’s adjustment to the Aerial Corps, which is much more casual and modern than he’s used to (there are even *gasp* women in it!)--but fun; I was rooting for Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, and enjoyed the story throughout. The characters are vivid and interesting, and I especially enjoyed Laurence’s struggle to adjust and the conflict between his respect for hierarchy and his discomfort with some of the ways things are done in the Corps. Creating such a stiff and formal protagonist is a risk, but Laurence works because at the same time he’s good-hearted and willing to adapt. Temeraire is also entertaining, breaking the typical dragon-companion mold (he likes books, for instance), and he manages not to come across as a animal-companion wish-fulfillment fantasy, which is rare in this sort of book. I’ve read comments indicating there’s a lot of romance in the book, which baffle me--there isn’t, at least not in the sexual sense; the growing friendship between Laurence and Temeraire is at the heart of the story. Laurence’s apparent love interest is awesome, though, and I’d love to see more of her in future books.
Otherwise, the writing is good, the period details convincing and the fantasy elements well-integrated into the historical setting. Novik’s style hints at 19th century writing, while still being easy going for the modern reader. The secondary characters are endearing or obnoxious as the author intended, and feel real enough to set them apart from the typical fantasy extras. And Novik manages a modern, critical look at the British Empire without Laurence’s ever breaking character; he’s unthinkingly loyal, even while the narrative questions that devotion. Really, there’s no downside here, unless you’re leery of starting a long and unfinished series. But while there seem to be some long-running threads introduced (Laurence’s relationship with his father, for one), the book works well as a standalone.
This isn’t great literature, and I don’t expect to read it again. But I do intend to read the sequel, and I recommend this one to anyone looking for fun, high-quality fantasy.(less)
I feel cheated. I liked Tremain's The Colour, and this book's subject matter sounded interesting: Eastern European immigrant tries to make his way in...moreI feel cheated. I liked Tremain's The Colour, and this book's subject matter sounded interesting: Eastern European immigrant tries to make his way in the still-sometimes-xenophobic Britain. And it started off interestingly, as I'd expected, with Lev's multi-day bus journey to London and his brief experience with homelessness once he gets there. Then after about 75 pages, it starts going downhill, and to my mind it never recovers.
Before I get into what I disliked, the good things about this book: it's decently well-written, it has some intriguing and funny moments, and the character development is at least competent--I did believe in these people.
My biggest problem with The Road Home is its bloat; it's much longer than it needs to be. Relatedly, after Lev's early experiences in England it quickly became boring to me: he finds a job in a fancy restaurant and rents a room from a friendly Irishman and the novel turns into a drawn-out, dull story of modern working-class life, not dealing with immigration-specific issues as much as I'd expected. If a book about a guy having an affair with a much younger woman, listening to his housemate's divorce and child-custody woes, and discovering his love of cooking appeals to you, you'll probably like it better than I did. (Okay, so I generally do hate books about modern life. I find them boring and don't give a shit for the characters. The Language of Flowers and Tell the Wolves I'm Home are the exceptions, not the rule. But still, Lev's life is unusual enough that I thought I would be able to appreciate it much more than I did.)
Compounding this problem is Lev himself. He's believable enough, but like Joseph Blackstone in The Colour, he's rather dull and a bit of a loser (he even has a nearly identical relationship with his widowed mother). Unlike Joseph, he isn't balanced by another, more likeable protagoinst; instead we have to spend over 400 pages in the guy's head. We're evidently supposed to admire him for working hard to support his family, but we're only briefly told about that, and shown a lot of scenes in which he displays the emotional maturity and problem-solving ability of your average 18-year-old boy--and Lev is 42. Then on top of being boring, he becomes violent toward his girlfriend, more than once. At this point I didn't even want him to succeed, which was clearly not the author's intent.
This one is going to come down to taste; the characterization and writing are acceptable, and if you like modern-relationships type stories, you'll probably like it better than I did. But it was a waste for me.(less)
I've never been a huge fan of Jane Austen, even though it seems like I should be. This book was well-written and, for the most part, engaging, but I d...moreI've never been a huge fan of Jane Austen, even though it seems like I should be. This book was well-written and, for the most part, engaging, but I don't feel like I have enough of an opinion about it even to rate it (and, uh, that's not usually a problem for me).
A lot of the ratings seem to turn on what people thought of Fanny. For people who dislike the book, the reason is generally her conspicuous lack of awesomeness--she's timid, shy, and self-effacing, she's not witty, a walk in the garden exhausts her, and she doesn't ever do much of anything. ("I cannot act," she says, in response to her cousins' request that she take a part in a play--but this pretty much sums up her role in the book, too.) At the same time, it's clear that Austen thinks a good deal of her--the girl's practically a Mary Sue. She grows up overlooked and emotionally neglected, but she's still sweet as can be and loves everybody, even those who don't deserve it. Plus, she's always right and everybody else has to admit it in the end. She reminds me a bit of Esther in Bleak House, except Esther I'm not entirely sure we're supposed to take at face value, and Fanny I think we are.
Fanny's redeeming quality is that she sticks to her guns (incongruous a metaphor as that is). Even when it's not cool, and despite her dependent status, she won't go against her principles. Unfortunately, she doesn't distinguish between morality and the stultifying sense of propriety at the time, so one of her two big stands is against her cousins and their friends putting on a play. (The other one, dealing with her love life, is more interesting and I liked the way that turned out.) I've read some reviews that made me think she spoke out against the corruption in her society, the fact that her family's money depends on slave labor in the Caribbean--and that would've been cool, but actually nobody ever mentions this. (I hear the movie is totally different so maybe that's where this meme came from?)
Anyway, I also noticed here just how little physicality there is in Austen's books. There's not much description, nor physical action in the scenes. They're all dialogue and exposition. This contributes to how limited and stultifying her world feels, to me--although it's not her fault we're used to more cinematic writing these days.
This all makes it sound like I didn't like the book. In fact, I read through it in a few days and am sure it's a good literary effort. And it sounds like I disliked Fanny--but I don't really have strong feelings about her one way or the other. Guess I just didn't "get it."(less)
The Remains of the Day is a short book, one that I read in a few hours, but with a lot of substance. It follows the narrator, Mr. Stevens--no first na...moreThe Remains of the Day is a short book, one that I read in a few hours, but with a lot of substance. It follows the narrator, Mr. Stevens--no first name, as he's not on a first-name basis with anyone--as he takes a trip through the English countryside and ruminates on his career as a butler. The more he talks, the clearer it becomes that he's not as satisfied with his life as he tries to convince himself he is, and that his rationalizations don't quite hold water.
For me this is pretty far toward the "literary" end of the spectrum, and I'm not generally a fan "mid-life crisis"-type books (well, this is more of a "late-in-life crisis" since Stevens is past middle age). So why did I like this one? Several reasons. It's well-written, in a completely convincing voice, and without pretension. Stevens alternates between anecdotes from the past, ruminations on his life and the simple tale of his current trip, all while sounding the way I imagine an actual English butler raised in the early 20th century would talk, without getting bogged down in heavily literary language. And there's no padding here: the book is the length it needs to be, long enough to tell the story but short enough that individual incidents are still meaningful. It's very understated, and makes the reader think, but you don't need an English degree to understand it either.
In terms of emotional involvement, I prefer Ishiguro's more recent novel, Never Let Me Go; this is a high-quality book but didn't grab me with the same ferocity. (On the other hand, I didn't have the issues with the premise here that I did with Never Let Me Go.) This novel deals with many of the same themes--most notably, with people unquestioningly handing control of their lives over to others, and losing everything that's meaningful in the process--and it does an excellent job, but often more extreme scenarios are simply more hard-hitting. Nevertheless, this book is likely to have more real-life relevance for readers, particularly if you've ever defined yourself by your work or let yourself focus on little things to the exclusion of what's really important (and come on, who hasn't done that?).
So I would recommend The Remains of the Day to anyone looking for an intelligent but accessible literary novel. It will take up very little of your time and will almost certainly be worth it.(less)
One of the great things this book has to offer is the experience of slowly discovering what's really going on in the characters' world. Even though th...moreOne of the great things this book has to offer is the experience of slowly discovering what's really going on in the characters' world. Even though there's no big revelation; when the facts come out, you'll realize you knew all along--like the characters, the reader is "told and not told." But the book is near-impossible to review without making explicit those elements that are best discovered while reading it. So, be warned: there be spoilers ahead! (Here and in virtually every other review.)
Most of this book consists of the narrator, Kathy, ruminating on her life. She grew up at Hailsham, an institution similar to a boarding school--except that the children never leave the grounds, never have visitors, and have meaningful connections only with one another. She recounts the details of her life and her relationships with her friends, with the smallest incidents taking on profound significance in her mind. It's both reminiscient of the enormous importance most of us put on relationships with peers as children and teenagers, and rather obsessive, since the students have no one else in their lives. After some thought, though, I think Ishiguro does a fantastic job with this portrayal of childhood: the group's cliques and its mythology and private vocabulary and in-jokes and its intense pressure to conform. But there's also something eerie and unusual about these kids' instinctive self-censorship, which is probably intentional.
At any rate, I found it to be a compelling and disquieting book. The contrast between Kathy's chatty, matter-of-fact narration about the mundane events of her life and the ugly truths in the background drives much of that eerieness. It's a very well-written, believable story that just sucked me in (or should I say, it would not let me go). And it's likely to leave you a bit depressed and thoughtful for awhile afterwards.
I do have some issues with it, though. It's true that every dystopian book is, to some extent, unrealistic and manipulative--that's practically the point--and I do like dystopian fiction. So my biggest problem isn't with the little issues around how the premise is developed, although there are some of those. Like, how does Kathy manage to spend 13 years of her adult life out in the world driving all over and yet fail to learn basic facts that are common knowledge? And there's that frequently asked question, why no one tries to rebel or run away. (I can see both sides of that one. Because most people do submit to authority, tyrannical as it may be--but then, not everyone, and certainly not when there are no control mechanisms in place like the threat of punishment to enforce conformity.)
No, my real issue is with the premise itself: just what is the author trying to say? Because organ transplants have been around for awhile now, without governments running amok and breeding kids just to murder them for their organs. Perhaps it could happen, but on my worry list it's ranked somewhere down there with Canada invading the U.S., a terrorist flying a plane into my house, and the government forcing kids to fight to the death on national TV--which is to say, while theoretically possible, this book isn't playing on what I'd consider credible fears. (Contrast, for instance, Hillary Jordan's When She Woke, a dystopia premised on the religious right wing taking over American politics--something I find both scary and plausible.) Is it meant to be a polemic against stem cell research (which makes sense only if you view human adults as a sensible metaphor for human embryos)? Or perhaps against cloning? But there's no reason people would treat people as less than human because they'd been cloned, any more than you'd treat someone badly because they're an identical twin or because they were conceived through artificial insemination. (Or at least, as that's my view, I just can't get worked up about cloning. Your mileage may vary. It's starting to sound like I may just not be conservative enough to identify with this premise.)
So in the end, the way I understand this book is by viewing the premise more broadly--as a polemic against exploitation of others for our own gain--and there it works well. We as a society don't much care about the lives of third-world workers who produce our cheap stuff, for instance, and we're more than willing to have animals bred to be slaughtered for food and raised in terrible conditions. And the book raises the question of whether our half-measures--trying to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in various ways, without addressing the underlying problems--are meaningful, or just ways of making us feel better about ourselves. So I do think it raises worthwhile and interesting issues--but more so when it's taken as an extended metaphor than when it's taken at its word.(less)
Small Island is a good, solid book in nearly every way, although for me it didn’t have that something extra that would take it up to 5 stars.
The frame...moreSmall Island is a good, solid book in nearly every way, although for me it didn’t have that something extra that would take it up to 5 stars.
The frame story is set in London, 1948: a black Jamaican couple, Hortense and Gilbert, move to England and rent a room from a white woman, Queenie, whose husband Bernard mysteriously failed to return from WWII. Most of the book traces each of the four main characters’ backstories, up until the last hundred pages set in 1948.
Small Island is quite an interesting piece of historical fiction, examining the era when England started to change from mostly homogenous to multicultural, and all the friction that went with that. The harsh realities of immigrant life and the ugliness of racism take center stage, particularly the latter, as American racism (segregation and hostility) is contrasted with British racism (less institutionalized but no less hostile) and Jamaican racism (subtler, based on the shade of one’s skin, but pernicious nonetheless). The book is thoughtful in its treatment of these themes: everyone involved has virtues and flaws, and there’s a powerful bit at the end that shows how harmful racism can be to white people too.
The characters themselves are fairly well-developed and believable. This is one of the few books where I don’t think the author made a terrible mistake in having all four characters each narrate their own story in the first person. While you can tell all four voices come from the same author, there are enough differences in their vocabularies and styles that this comes off well, and each personality comes through in the narration. Levy also does an excellent job of showing those personalities rather than simply describing them: an example other authors could learn from. We don't have to be told that Hortense is prim, Queenie well-meaning but patronizing, or Bernard rigid. But while the characters are distinct (from one another and from other fictional characters; I appreciate the avoidance of the generically-inoffensive type), at times they felt a bit consciously constructed, their personalities not quite fitting together. Gilbert, for instance, says several times that he wants to study law, but he seems to have that desire merely so that obstacles can be thrown in his way; he doesn’t ever show actual interest in law, or enjoy reading, or display any other characteristics that would make sense of that ambition. But still, the characters are interesting people whose backstories I wanted to read, and their relationships are complex. Both marriages are made from convenience, and it was especially interesting to see how everyone dealt with that.
Levy also does an excellent job evoking the settings--the Blitz has been done a lot in literature, for example, but this depiction stands out. The dialogue is good, and the use of Jamaican patois lends color without being impenetrable. The writing is smooth and the ending appropriately bittersweet. So while this isn’t up to 5 stars with me, it certainly gets a solid 4.(less)
I’m afraid this review will not be popular with fans of the author, or those who see classic literature as unassail...moreCaution: Spoilers and Snark abound!
I’m afraid this review will not be popular with fans of the author, or those who see classic literature as unassailable. But after slogging through this book (especially so soon after discovering Villette, a truly excellent classic!), I feel obliged to warn potential readers, and let those who were disappointed with the book but wary about criticizing a classic know that they aren’t alone.
So, then: a recipe for North and South:
- Add one romantic plotline borrowed straight from Pride and Prejudice, only the leads’ arguments are about labor relations. Also, after the disastrous proposal scene, don't let him write a letter and so keep the relationship on hold until the last two pages. (Thesereviews lay out many more similarities between the two books that I have not repeated here.)
- Add some poor families/dying children borrowed straight from Dickens, only keep the deaths off-page.
- Add at least 6 character deaths, almost all off-page. The deaths and subsequent grieving can substitute for a plot throughout the second half of the book.
- Add 1 Mary Sue, otherwise known as Margaret Hale. Everybody must worship Margaret. Include sentences such as “Martha, like all who came in contact with Margaret.... felt it a pleasure and an honour to forward any of her wishes.” Ensure that even Lady Catherine.... sorry, Mrs. Thornton.... is melted by her lovely eyes and straightforward demeanor. Have characters berate each other for not singing her praises enthusiastically enough, then report the incident to Margaret with concern. (I am not making this up!) Also, describe her constantly. Like when she meets the leading man for the first time. Don’t describe him, describe her! Again!
- Add many interior monologues by the leading man detailing his feelings for Margaret. Think you have enough? Try doubling that. We want to know EXACTLY how in love with her he is.
- Add a handful of goofy, melodramatic scenes and startling coincidences. (I shudder when I think of that riot scene....) While these may threaten any feelings of authenticity the plot may have had, at least they'll keep it moving when you run out of deaths.
- Add 4 cups of tedium. Mix well.
- If you are Penguin Classics: sprinkle useless, spoiler-laden endnotes (such as, after Margaret shares her views of a subject in Chapter 1, “Margaret painfully revises her view of X after the deaths of A and B”) throughout. This is super easy to do because all you have to do is find really obvious points in the text and spell them out.
Voila! North and South.
In all fairness, and the reason I at least give 2 stars: there is some decent characterization here, particularly of the minor characters. There are some passages that make me think the author might have turned this into a decent social satire a la Jane Austen. And I’m willing to admit that the book might have been ahead of its time on some issues, like workers’ rights, although the bookjacket gave the impression there would be more of a social justice ethos, when it seemed to me just repackaged Dickens (who was its publisher) plus a strike. But was it ever a slog to get through! There just was not much tension in this book; even the romance wasn’t interesting until the last two pages, and by then it was too late.
So: apologies to any who loved this book and were offended by my irreverent treatment, etc. As for me, I’ll just read more Jane Austen. Or better yet, Charlotte Brontë.(less)
This is a fun, charming little book, written in a sort of loose diary format from the perspective of a girl living in 1930’s rural England. Most of it...moreThis is a fun, charming little book, written in a sort of loose diary format from the perspective of a girl living in 1930’s rural England. Most of its appeal is in Cassandra’s voice, which is very strong, and its portrayal of a coming-of-age story that’s enjoyable and lighthearted, but without being dumb or shallow in retrospect.
Cassandra and her family live in an old castle, and they’ve been sinking into poverty since her author-father hasn’t written anything for years. Much of the book focuses on the romantic escapades of Cassandra and her older sister Rose, when two eligible young American men move in nearby. But the book isn’t a romance; it’s a story about growing up, and Cassandra wrestles with her relationships with family members, her (lack of) religious beliefs and her writing skills--she’s keeping a journal as practice for writing a novel, which neatly explains the inclusion of scenes and dialogue in someone’s diary.
The book starts out a bit slowly, but gets going after about 50 pages and is an entertaining read. “Charming” is probably the best word for it. Cassandra stands out for her mix of intelligence and naïveté; she’s quite perceptive about people, but doesn’t know much about life. She feels real and authentic (minus one problem that I’ll get to later). It’s interesting to see all the other characters through Cassandra’s eyes, because several are not very nice and yet everything we hear about them is filtered through Cassandra’s deep-seated affection for them. The book makes excellent use of voice and perspective and never forgets who is telling the tale. And the writing style is good, but believable coming from a 17-18 year old girl. Some episodes are downright amusing, and the book does a good job recalling what it’s like to grow up.
My biggest problem with the book was that I experienced a lot of dissonance regarding Cassandra’s (and Rose’s) actual age. Cassandra is 17-18 and Rose 20-21, but both felt 3-4 years younger. A lot of that is probably cultural and as a historical fiction reader I should be used to this, but I think the fact that the book is set in relatively modern times actually made this worse. There’s the way people around Cassandra infantilize her--their constantly referring to her as a “child” (even her significantly-older love interest does this, which is creepy) and, for instance, asking if she’s old enough to attend a dinner party (why wouldn’t she be?) had me picturing her as about 12. And then, neither she nor Rose seems to have any future plans; Cassandra has no thought of leaving home; neither has any work experience or marketable skills; neither has ever thought herself in love or so much as kissed a boy. (Rose, whom we’re told is beautiful, “first realizes” her power over men during the book. I know they live in a remote area, but surely she’d encountered male attention before?) So, Cassandra’s experience of being 17-18 felt more like my experience of being 15. Which surprised me a bit, because we think of ourselves as growing up slowly in the U.S. these days. On the bright side, though, the fact that I can relate to Cassandra’s experiences at all speaks well of the book.
Possibly I just read this book at the wrong age (mid-20s). It’s probably best read by either teenagers a few years younger than Cassandra, or adults decades removed who want to look back nostalgically on their teen years. One of the things Smith does very well here is write a book that can appeal to both kids and adults; perhaps because it was written before the “young adult” genre was born, it’s appropriate for young readers without ever feeling patronizing or whitewashed.
Also, I read the edition with the movie cover, but disliked it so intensely that I'm listing the hardcover edition so I don't have to look at it again.(less)
Having been disappointed with most of what I’d been reading lately, I decided to read this book even though I’m not a short story fan, because I thoug...moreHaving been disappointed with most of what I’d been reading lately, I decided to read this book even though I’m not a short story fan, because I thought Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was an absolutely brilliant book. And I was in the mood for something I knew would be good.
And it was good. These eight short stories, set in the same imagined England as Clarke’s novel, share much of its atmosphere and wit. As is to be expected, they’re also very well-written, in the same sort of nineteenth-century language as the novel. I enjoyed them--particularly the title story, “Mrs Mabb,” “Mr Simonelli” and “Tom Brightwind,” all longer stories dealing with the relationships between people and the magical world.
But I can’t say this collection has converted me into a fan of short stories—I find I have little to say about it. They’re certainly well-done, but it’s Clarke’s next novel that I’m really waiting for.(less)
Unlike some other reviewers, I wouldn't call Tides of War boring, but I will say it tries to do too much with too many characters in too little time....moreUnlike some other reviewers, I wouldn't call Tides of War boring, but I will say it tries to do too much with too many characters in too little time. More specifically, it isn't that there are too many characters based on sheer numbers: it's that there are too many different stories being told at once, too many independent arcs. First we meet Harriet and James Raven, a newlywed couple separated when he's set off fight Napoleon's troops in Spain. We meet the Duke of Wellington, and Lady Wellington, who's finding her own independence while her husband is away commanding troops. Okay, fair enough. Seems like a manageable number of main characters, if a bit high for a 368-page book. But, no, here's an army doctor, a volunteer, a middle-aged army wife, a financier, an aide-de-camp, a weaver-turned-soldier, a painter, a widow.... oh, and who's that Herriers guy again? I count at least a dozen "main" characters in this book, in that they all get sections from their own points-of-view following their own independent storylines--no wonder this book is a mess. The storylines often don't intersect that much, there isn't much time to develop them, and in some cases I simply don't see the point. And it doesn't help that the characters are introduced in quite unmemorable ways, so it takes awhile to sort them out. (Speaking of unmemorable introductions, this book makes my all-time top two for "least interesting first sentence." But it does get better.)
Just as the book has too many main characters for its length, it also tries to deal with too many big issues--everything from the psychological trauma caused by war and the soldiers' difficulties in reintegrating into civilian society, to the technological changes inspiring the Luddite movement, to women's rights, to imperialism. The book is so overwhelmed with themes that it can't do any of them justice.
Also, there are some technical problems: there's a lot of "head-hopping," where the point-of-view shifts from one character to another without any page breaks to tip the reader off, and unattributed dialogue, necessitating re-reading to figure out who said what.
Tides of War isn't, however, an irredeemably awful book. The scenes themselves are interesting, the characters' personalities are well delineated for the amount of screen time they get, and the writing style is not bad. On many (most?) of the themes, I think Tillyard has interesting and insightful things to say; the book felt fresh in a lot of places, but before it could delve much into anything it was on to something else. The psychology of the characters felt real and the history was interesting. Unfortunately, this isn't enough to bring the book up to a higher star rating; it certainly has potential, and if Tillyard had had a better editor (and a more generous word limit?) it might have been a very good book. As is, though, I can't recommend it.
And a warning: the book has a fair number of potentially disturbing elements. There's a character who performs experiments in transfusion on animals, there's at least one detailed field-operation scene, and most notably, there's a brutal gang rape described from the point-of-view of one of the rapists. (By contrast, there's a minimal amount of battlefield violence depicted.)
Finally.... while I wasn't bored by the book, it was not compelling reading and I nearly didn't finish it. Two stars. (less)
So, having already read Sharon Kay Penman's excellent The Sunne in Splendour, I picked up this book, also about the War of the Roses, because I though...moreSo, having already read Sharon Kay Penman's excellent The Sunne in Splendour, I picked up this book, also about the War of the Roses, because I thought it would be cool to read about the same time period as seen through the eyes of Marguerite of Anjou. By 75 pages in, I realized the characters were all way too bland to hold my interest. Besides, Higginbotham's "rethinking" of Marguerite looked like it was going to boil down to "she did everything to protect the rights of her husband and son" and, well, I gathered that from Penman's version.
Could work as brain candy. But not what I was looking for.(less)